THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
"MICROBE AND GASOLINE (MICROBE ET GASOIL)"
Microbe and Gasoline is the new film from Michel Gondry, a filmmaker who specializes in showing audiences things they haven't seen before, in ways they haven't seen before. Whether he's working with major stars on a big canvas (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Green Hornet) or on a smaller, more intimate scale (The We and the I), Gondry loves to forge original paths. This new film falls into the latter category – he made it in his home country of France – yet it retains the playful quality that has made all his projects thus far worth seeing, even if it's not his absolute best.
This is Gondry's take on the coming-of-age tale. It concerns two teen boys. Ange Dargent plays Daniel, a misfit kid who has been given the nickname “Microbe” because of his small stature. He befriends the new student in school, Theo (Theophile Baquet), who is called “Gasoline” because he loves tinkering with engines and therefore always smells like gas. Both boys have their problems. Daniel is sexually naive and intensely curious, but his mother (Audrey Tautou) is too distracted to fully relate to his issues. Theo, meanwhile, comes from a dysfunctional family. Together, they decide to escape it all by spending the summer traveling across France in a homemade car. Since they're both too young to drive, they disguise it to look like a little cabin, so that they can simply stop if they see a police officer coming.
Microbe and Gasoline very accurately portrays the mindset of boys of a certain age. The characters are entering puberty, so sex is both appealing and terrifying. Emotions in general are intense at that age. Running away not only gives Daniel and Theo an escape, it also gives them an adventure that helps them feel as though they're dealing with all those emotions. Gondry gets admirably authentic, sincere performances from his young actors, and the use of the house/car as a metaphor is striking. It looks normal on the outside but hides something much different underneath – just like its two drivers. On a more surface level, there are some really funny moments as the kids narrowly avoid having their cover blown, especially once they meet an assortment of colorful characters on their journey. Daniel's sojourn into an Asian massage parlor is also quite humorous.
It takes a while for Microbe and Gasoline to really get going. In fact, for most of the first half, you wouldn't necessarily even know it was a Gondry film. When his signature visual flourishes and conceptual quirks finally kick in, the tone feels like it's shifting too abruptly. Even though both halves work, the transition isn't entirely seamless. Some of the stylistic eccentricities should have been introduced earlier to make the flow smoother. One also can't escape the fact that not a whole lot happens here story-wise. It's more of a character study than anything. That's fine, but an expanded plot would have sold Gondry's themes even more. As is, they're squeezed into a fairly episodic tale. He needs a Charlie Kaufman (who penned Eternal Sunshine) to help bring his ideas to full fruition.
Nonetheless, the movie is enjoyable for its warm humor and for the subtle, poignant explorations of adolescent angst. Dargent and Baquet are likable heroes, giving performances so natural that you kind of forget they're actors. Microbe and Gasoline may have a few flaws, but its strengths are solid enough to make this an appealingly offbeat and intelligent teen comedy.
( out of four)
Microbe and Gasoline is rated R for some sex-related material involving young teens. The running time is 1 hour and 45 minutes.
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